You can be fairly sure that a thirty-year-old American self-identified feminist today is a fan of birth control, Medicare, and democracy. In 1890 one could make no such assumptions about a pro-woman radical. She might well support free love but think condoms a tool of the sex-mad patriarchy; she might want to socialize housework or smash the state. One is struck, paging through this idiosyncratic survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers, by the enthusiasm for a kind of fluid, shape-shifting self-conception...
If the period Rowbotham surveys was indeed characterized by wide-eyed "optimistic imagining," our own time is striking for the narrowness of its political and economic questions.
The successes of feminism and market capitalism (the latter trend evidenced by the desperate use of words like socialist and fascist to describe various shades of market-friendly moderates in American political discourse) have bequeathed to today's feminists a straitened range of internecine dispute. Movement types are less likely to question the gender assumptions of liberal democracy than to argue about the importance of a female president, less likely to discuss the machinery of production than to discuss the role of woman as consumer. This comparatively fixed framework, this shift from sprawling questions to well-defined goals, is a symptom of progress. And yet after reading Rowbotham it's hard not to notice the comparative tininess of today's tent.
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